When Talents, Skills, and Dreams Are Idols

presbyterianchurch_optby John Ellis

Society has convinced many professing Christians that self-fulfillment is one of the highest goods. Unfortunately, that belief runs counter to the Bible’s call for Christians to die to self and to surrender their rights for the sake of the gospel. Many Christians, however, have willingly swallowed that lie and allow the pursuit of their dreams and articulation of their talents prevent them from serving God in the local church. That attitude once characterized my perspective, but, in His kindness, God changed my dreams and taught me that my talents are subservient to serving Him.

Coming to terms with the reality that God was removing theatre from my life was tough. Thankfully, during that time, God in His mercy placed me in a job situation that provided me with many hours alone; I was left with just my thoughts, the Bible, and God. The twelve hour third shifts were the worst, or, in hindsight, the best.

As I sat (or paced) in the guard shack where I worked as a security guard, those lonely twelve hour shifts were spent studying the Bible and in prayer. Often, my prayers were framed by bitter anger as I confronted God about the apparent fact that He was taking theatre away from me.

For over fifteen years, theatre had been my life, my identity. Almost every waking moment was spent studying, thinking about, or making theatre. To be fair, somewhat, I truly believed that through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, I had reached a point where I was committed to making theatre that honored God and made His name great[1]. However, during that year bitterly pacing the guard shack, the Holy Spirit revealed that theatre was not only an idol in my heart, but theatre was also where I placed my identity.

By God’s grace, my prayers changed from “why, God?” to “please remove the idol from my heart, and cause me to place my full identity in Christ.” But, I still hoped and prayed that God would use my talents and abilities as a theatre artist for His glory. God had other plans, though.

Over the last three years, many well-meaning Christians friends have encouraged me to not give up theatre. Often the encouragement takes the form of “God gave you the talent and passion for a reason. Don’t bury your talent. Make theatre for God’s glory.”

Except, God hasn’t called me to make theatre. He has called me to serve Him in and through my church family. Making theatre would be an obstacle to living out that calling. And whatever talents and dreams that I may have do not change that.

Unfortunately, possibly ignoring the command to die to self, many Christians live their lives as if their talents and skills signal a God given right to pursue their ambitions. Often, those ambitions are couched in selfless and even spiritual terms.

Some people justify the abandonment of their families and churches as necessary collateral damage as they pursue the academic degrees that God has intellectually gifted them for[2]. If the cost of an academic degree means lack of involvement in your church, that may signal that your pursuing that degree for your good and not for the glory of God. Likewise, providing for your family’s needs, both physical and spiritual, may not be an acceptable cost, no matter how gifted an intellect you may have. Of course, providing for your family is a readily available excuse for some to justify their refusal to die to self.

Many businessmen and women will excuse their inconsistent church attendance or limited time with their families by claiming that they are fulfilling their mandate to be good providers. The question they should be asked (and, ask of themselves) is, “Who or what is defining what ‘good provider’ means?” In other words, are you sure that by “good provider” you aren’t meaning “more material comfort?” If someone is working long hours in order to remain on the promotion track but that take him away from his family and church, he may be saying “providing for my family” while actually meaning the accumulation of “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy.”[3] If that is the case, then idols may have been revealed that are turning his affections away from God.

The pursuit of more material possessions makes an easy target, though. Most of us in this country are rich in comparison with the vast majority of the people who have walked this planet. Providing for our family is easy for many. That makes the contrast between being a provider and sinful ambition relatively easy to see. For others, however, the contrast between keeping your hand on the plow God has given you and sinful ambition is easily masked by idolatrous hearts. Supposed transcendent pursuits may have the false gilding of reverence, but are often simply the fulfillment of selfish desires and the excuse to neglect church.

Art reveals who God is; art is a wonderful means for communicating truths about God. But, art and the pursuit of art should not take precedence over the artist’s involvement in church. Sadly, many artists prioritize their craft well above the church. While the broader evangelical church has much to answer for in relation to the discouragement of Christians who are artists, the sin of others never excuses sin in our own lives.

Christians are, well, Christians first; our primary (and only) identity is being in Christ. Our roles as artists, lawyers, teachers, et al. serve our identity in Christ, not the other way around. If our vocation, be it artist or businessperson, prevents us from being actively involved in the church in which the Holy Spirit has placed us, that’s a sign that our identity may be misplaced.

Much of this, however, comes from a poor understanding of the local church.

First and foremost, “Christ’s work continues in the church; the fullness of the mystery of God in redemption is disclosed among his people.”[4] Mark Dever frequently says that the local church is where God intends to display His glory to the nations.[5] And God does this by calling a people from all tribes, tongues, and nations to Himself through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The local church is a vibrant testimony to non-Christians of the reality of God’s kingdom inaugurated through the work of Jesus Christ.

As followers of King Jesus, Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom. The Apostle Peter called Believers, “sojourners and exiles”[6] in this world. My pastor describes local churches as Embassies of Heaven, and there are few descriptions that are more apt. As citizens of God’s kingdom, it’s imperative for Christians to be committed to a local church, or, rather, committed to an Embassy of Heaven.

For Christians, participation in the local church is not optional. God has not called people to a solitary faith. Followers of King Jesus are called to worship together, pray together, and spur each other on to love and good works – specifically, the good work of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers. Any endeavor that prohibits committed, consistent involvement with your church is an endeavor that needs to be reevaluated.

For me, pursuing a career in theatre would greatly curtail my involvement in my church. Over the last three years, God has blessed me with opportunities to encourage and disciple several brothers in Christ. Further, by God’s grace, my family has made it a priority to devote much of our resources (material and time) to the edification of our church family. The nature of theatre would take me away from my church family, and curtail my involvement with the means of grace administered through the active involvement in church.

Some will respond that it’s not an either/or; that God wants me to make theatre and be actively involved in the church. They will tell me that the two callings are not mutually exclusive. Maybe for others, but not for me. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

However, I dare say that for many who do try and balance pursuing the expression of talents and dreams with church involvement, that balance isn’t nearly as balanced as they pretend it to be.

While I’m unsure why God has given me the talent to be a theatre artist, I am sure that God’s will for my life involves robust participation in my church. I’m also sure that God’s will for every Christian involves robust participation in a local church. Anything that hinders a Christian’s involvement in church, whether it be theatre, or youth sports leagues, or a job with great benefits and a chance for upward mobility, should be considered an idol, an enemy to sanctification, and a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli deo Gloria

[1] To be clear, I had zero desire to make “religious” theatre. My theatre theory and practice, however, is a whole other topic. … My apparent need to clarify proves that I have retained much of the theatre nerd that dominated my perspective for so long.

[2] Like all the examples in this article, this is not a blanket condemnation. For one thing, “providing for your family” should be defined within the confines of your church and your church leadership. Sacrifice isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and, like the sacrifice of talents in order to better serve the church, God does call people to make material sacrifices for His sake. Unfortunately, many men (and it’s usually men) ask their wives to sacrifice above and beyond in order to gratify their intellectual pride. This is a heart issue, and is difficult to appropriately delineate in a short article.

[3] Matthew 6:19, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1832.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; rev. ed., 1995), 565.

[5] Dever says that so frequently that I don’t know which book to cite as the source.

[6] 1 Peter 2:11, ESV Study Bible, 2408.

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